I was recently asked the question, “Where does your story in the autistic community begin?” It’s a question that Doug Blecher, the host of the podcast Autism Stories askes all of his interviewees. What I told him in our interview was both poignant and sad for me.
My story in the autistic community began with an art therapy client who told me she thought she might be autistic. At the time, I had very little understanding of autism. All I knew was what I was taught in graduate school, which was the DSM-5 Criteria. I knew nothing about neurodivergence. All I knew was that autism involved avoiding eye contact, difficulty socializing, stimming behavior, and other external behaviors.
My client did not exhibit the symptoms I was taught and I completely dismissed her. I did not even encourage her to follow up with someone more knowledgeable about autism because I did not think she needed to pursue that incorrect possibility.
By the time I developed an understanding of autism, she was no longer my client. I know enough now to see that she clearly was autistic. This is a grief that I must hold.
I was originally nervous to share this story on Doug’s podcast. It’s a vulnerable story of how I unintentionally harmed and dismissed an autistic individual and client. However, if I want the mental health field and the experiences of autistic people to change, I need to be open about the harm I caused.
I need to be open about it because there are THOUSANDS of therapists in that position now. Most therapists know very little about autism. I know many autistic people who pursued therapy and were misdiagnosed. I know countless others who were harmed by their therapeutic experiences and squeezed into therapy approaches that are incongruent for neurodivergent minds.
Ironically, I am also an autistic individual who was misdiagnosed. I went to therapy with multiple therapists across 10 years. None of them ever thought I could be autistic. I understand why. They were like me: poorly educated about autism and with little to no understanding of neurodivergence.
I cannot undo the harm I caused, but I can alter the future. My art therapy private practice is now devoted to newly identified autistic individuals or those who think they might be autistic. I write dozens of essays about the autistic experience. I also present professionally to mental health professions about autism. This month I am presenting at the National Art Therapy Conference on “Identifying Autism in Undiagnosed Women.”
I hope that with time, therapists will receive full and accurate education about autism in graduate school, as well as in continuing education.
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